Expo amphitheatre fills with mourners, emotions at service for helicopter crash victims.
When remembering the nine who died in the Aug. 5 helicopter crash in Northern California, don't dwell on their final moment, urges the mother of fallen firefighter Steven "Caleb" Renno.
"We don't want you to remember our son in the tragedy of that day, in that helicopter burning," Catherine Renno told the roughly 3,500 people gathered for Friday's memorial at the Jackson County Fairgrounds and Exposition Park in Central Point. "We don't want to remember our sons there because that was one small moment in their lives.
"We want to remember them for what they had done that day — they held the line," she said. "They held the line when the wind picked up. And they held the line when the fire jumped."
Steven Renno, 21, of Cave Junction was among seven Grayback Forestry Inc. firefighters holding the line that day.
They died when the Merlin-based Carson Helicopter Inc.'s Sikorsky-61 went down that evening on the Buckhorn fire of the Iron 44 Complex in the Trinity Alps Wilderness some 35 miles northwest of Redding.
In addition to Renno, other Grayback firefighters killed were Scott Charlson, 25, Edrik Gomez, 19, and David E. Steele, 19, all of Ashland; Bryan J. Rich, 29, and Shawn O. Blazer, 30, both of Medford; and Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass.
Also killed were veteran pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, and U.S. Forest Service aviation inspector Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif.
Three firefighters — Michael Brown, Jonathan Frohreich and Rick Schroeder, all of Medford — survived, as did pilot William "Bill" Coultas of Cave Junction. The firefighters are still mending but have been released from the hospital. Coultas remains in critical condition in the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Friday's tribute began with a procession of some 30 fire trucks representing firefighting companies and agencies from around the West. Leading the procession was seven black vehicles carrying family members.
Grayback firefighters lined each side of the road as the procession entered the fairgrounds under crossed fire ladders. The Grayback crews, all in gray company T-shirts, forest green Nomax pants and boots, then marched solemnly into the amphitheater for the memorial. Most were young men but there was also a sprinkling of young women.
With the families of the fallen sitting up front, the memorial opened with a police honor guard and a bagpipe-and-drum corps. Later, just as the Northwest Regional Fire Pipes and Drums was completing "Amazing Grace," a spotter plane followed by an air tanker roared overhead to honor those killed in the crash. Another air tanker followed, symbolically dropping nine streamers traditionally used to determine wind direction over a fire.
Surviving members of the Grayback crew, including Schroeder, who is wearing a chin brace, presented the families of those who died with American flags, chromed Pulaskis — a combined ax and hoe that is the favored tool of wildland firefighters — and polished red hard hats for the firefighters. The families of the pilots received shiny white flight helmets.
Closing out the ceremony was a Grayback firefighter who rang the fire bell 15 times in a series of five rings each, a historical way of letting other firefighters know one of their own has fallen.
In addition to Catherine Renno, others speaking at the memorial included U.S. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, State Forester Marvin Brown, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Grayback President Mike Wheelock, Carson Executive Vice President Steve Metheny and Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski was in attendance.
"It is an unhappy truth that firefighters' memorial services are always about the passing of the very best men and women our society can produce," Metheny said. "And these men are proof of that truth."
Many in the crowd began weeping when former smoke jumper Wheelock spoke.
"To the families, I am so sorry we did not bring your loved ones home," he said, his voice breaking. "Families and firefighters, we will never, never forget the firefighters that were injured or lost their lives on Iron 44."
During her presentation, Renno, whose husband, Bruce LeMay, offered a prayer for those killed or injured in the crash as well as others who have died in service to fellow citizens or the nation, said they have had some tough days since the crash.
"It was a comfort to my heart to learn, by talking to some of the guys that made it, that they weren't tired and worn out as they got onto the helicopter," she said. "They were pretty jazzed. They were pretty happy because they had held the line. That does our hearts good to know that, that our sons on their last day held the line."
Noting that her son was "very spiritual," she said he believed that everything was sacred.
"He believed that prayer, true prayer, in communion with God, was reflected in our every word, in our every action," she added. "He called that his living prayer. He lived his prayer every day. . . .And I know in my heart that all his friends that died with him were living their prayer.
"I pray for all the mothers whose hearts have gone into the deep abyss with me through this tragedy," she added. "I think the only reason we came out of that dark place was because of the love of our families and the love and prayers of these good people in our communities and across the country. Somehow, we floated above that abyss."
To honor the fallen, those in attendance can try to emulate what they represented, she said.
"If you want to do anything to honor them, do a random act of kindness," she said. "Make your words and actions be a living prayer because that's how our sons lived."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.